Our American Library Association (ALA) group consisted of thirty librarians from all over the U.S. Before heading to Havana, ALA reached out to its Cuban professional equivalent, ASCUBI, Asociación Cubana de Bibliotecarios, with whom we met at the Biblioteca Nacional José Martí (BNJM). Our tour was entitled “Havana International Book Fair Tour” but the Book Fair took second place to the discussions with librarians, and the visits to Cuban libraries, all of which were amazing. The Biblioteca Nacional Jose Marti is located on prime real estate in Havana, facing La Plaza de la Revolución, where U.S. made cars from the 1950s wait for the tourist buses and offer rides around the city in colorful convertibles. The imposing outline of Che on a building opposite the library reminds us that the country was forever changed in 1959 when the revolution brought hope to some and disaster to others.
The library’s name honors Cuban poet and national hero Jose Marti
–who lived for over ten years in New York City–
and who wrote the Versos Sencillos on which the well-known
Cuban patriotic song Guantanamera is based…
Yo soy un hombre sincero
De donde crece la palma
Y antes de morirme
Quiero echar mis versos del alma.
I am a truthful man from this land of palm trees
Before dying I want to share these poems of my soul.
At the BNJM, Sari Feldman, President of the American Library Association, and Vailey Oehlke, President of the Public Library Association, spoke of the invaluable work being done in U.S. libraries to an audience of Cuban librarians from ASCUBI. We spoke with them after the conference, exchanged questions and ideas, and networked. The power of exchanging ideas and information is vital to libraries, and we discussed their traditions, their services, patrons, and their future. What blossomed was a great desire to work together—something which our two countries have not been able to do for over fifty years. Despite all the politics, all the speculation, and the variety of viewpoints, U.S. and Cuban librarians came together because of what we value: the impact of libraries, the love of literature, and literacy and reading in any society.